The Book Club

Celebration, U.S.A., and The Celebration Chronicles

Dear Witold,

If one measure of a community’s success is, as I’ve been told, its ability to bring like minds together, then I must compliment Celebration, Fla., on at least the one count, of giving us a pretext to correspond. Celebration, of course, is the town built by Disney, and our concern here is the two recent books about the town, The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town, by Andrew Ross, and Celebration, U.S.A.: Living in Disney’s Brave New Town, by Catherine Collins and her husband, Douglas Frantz.

I wonder if you shared my spooky feeling reading both of these books, a feeling totally unconnected with literary merit or effect. You and I were both early visitors and pioneer critics of Celebration, you for The New Yorker and I for Harper’s magazine, but that was back when the town had no residents and, at least when I was there, no habitable houses. My experience with the town began in 1994, when it was still a vast pasture and palmetto swamp attached to the Disney World campus outside Orlando. On a later visit, a veritably complete downtown had sprung up, but it was yet vacant, its storefronts without signs, its windows without glass, not a solitary pedestrian along its streets. Witnessing that kind of progression, the field giving way to the skeletal, empty, immaculate ruin, is the common experience of the archaeologist, but not of the urbanologist. What complete city was ever all at one time empty? But the poor archaeologist can only wonder about the lives of the people who lived in the city’s bones, hard as one might work to get those bones to speak. And that’s the spookiness: We saw the ruins and wondered about the lives, and now, with these two books, the ruins are speaking and the place has come miraculously to life.

Both these books follow a similar trajectory: Their authors moved in early in Celebration’s existence–Ross into an apartment, and Frantz/Collins into a $300,000 “Savannah” model two-story home–and watched the town unfold during the first year of its infancy, seeking, like some anxious parent, the significance behind every diaper change and wobbly step. They record many of the same events: The conflicts over school quality, shoddy home construction, Disney-enforced conduct codes. And they eventually seem to concur in their wistful conclusion that if Celebration is a bit of a corporate harlot, it yet has a heart of gold, or at least of honest brass, and does not deserve the easy contempt of its oh-so-sophisticated detractors.

Now we, who once critiqued the town, are invited to critique the town’s critics. The town, we can surmise from this, has come a long way. I’d like to volunteer that these books have drawn some perversely unsatisfying combination reviews, most notably in the Sept. 6 New York Times, which devoted the weight of 30 column inches (by my pica rule) to admiring Celebration, U.S.A., except for one paragraph spent denouncing The Celebration Chronicles on the astonishing grounds that Mr. Ross is a single man in an apartment without a mortgage or children, and thus had no “real stake” equipping him to comment. This credentials-committee rebuke must have made even Mr. Frantz and Ms. Collins cringe, avowed admirers of diversity that they are. But it opens up an interesting question: What is the purpose of Celebration? It isn’t a mill town or a railroad town, a seaport or fall-line entrepot. The Times review, in its denunciation of Ross’ bachelor insufficiency, implied that the town’s purpose was focused on child rearing and real estate accumulation. And surely education and innovative housing were big draws for many residents. But most of those residents, it is clear from these accounts, also were animated by enthusiasm for the larger experiment, Celebration’s self-declared mission of turning around the soul-deadening blight of suburban sprawl and employing virtuous design and bedrock community principles to reinvigorate the nation’s civic life. Far from innocent, “Celebration was a knowing soul from the beginning,” Mr. Ross writes. While Frantz, Collins, and Ross admit to a bit of discomfort at their roles as spies in the laboratory, Celebration’s knowingness makes them more than just spectators. In an experimental town whose residents pull it up by the roots each morning to see how it is doing, whose central motif is self-inspection, the authors are the professional self-inspectors, Celebration’s original captains of industry.

The Times reviewer called Mr. Ross’ tone “oracular,” and it is, appropriately. Both of these books are oracles. The issues they raise–Mr. Ross more abstractly and wittily, Mr. Frantz and Ms. Collins more earnestly and intimately, are not side issues to the American experiment. They are as deep and as urgent as the question Celebration’s patriarch and muse, Walt Disney, expressed in a memo before his death: Is democracy the best way to run a town? These books, and perhaps our conversation, concern the heart of the American charter in the corporate age. Does it take a Disney to save the American community? And if it does, is that because the enemy we are saving it from is Disney? Because of these issues, we all have a stake in Celebration, and I look forward immensely to talking with you about the town, and about these books.